From southern Oregon to the United Kingdom to Poland, the most radical wing of the animal-rights and environmental movements are stepping up their rhetoric and actions. Attacks on property are escalating, as are death warnings against persons perceived to be "enemies." For instance:
A series of recent bomb threats have been made against McDonald's restaurants in the Netherlands, and several McDonald's in Belgium have been the target of arsonists who claim the fast-food giant destroys rain forests to raise cattle for hamburger (a charge the company denies).
Earlier this month, Swedish activists burned and destroyed two trucks used by a meat-processing company to transport animals.
Just before Christmas, radical activists in Italy claimed to have injected rat poison into thousands of panettone - traditional holiday cakes - made by Nestle Italia, a company that critics say uses genetically engineered ingredients.
Radical activism is not new to the movement. Blockading logging operations, spray-painting furs, and "liberating" animals destined for slaughter or medical testing have become almost routine. But the level of destruction and violence appears to be reaching new highs.
Threats against researchers
In England, 10 research scientists who use animals in medical testing have been threatened with death.
In Medford, Ore., this week, the underground Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the Dec. 27 arson attack on the corporate headquarters of U.S. Forest Industries, a forest-products company with operations in Oregon, Colorado, and Florida.
Law-enforcement authorities and private experts believe that organizations such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (which also claims to have set the fires that destroyed ski facilities and a restaurant under construction in Vail, Colo., last October) are made up of small, obscure groups of individuals who act on their own.
The ALF describes itself as "nothing more than people who get together with their most trusted friends and fight back for the animals."
"Any regular person who carries out a nonviolent direct action for the animals can consider themselves part of the ALF," states a recent "communiqu" on the ALF Web site.
Most such attacks go unsolved. There are no suspects in either the Vail incident, which caused some $12 million in damages, or in the more recent arson here in southern Oregon causing some $500,000 in damages.
"These are hit-and-run kinds of things," says Ron Arnold, executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Bellevue, Wash., that is highly critical of most organized environmentalism. "They are as unpredictable as a bank robbery. You don't know where they are. You don't know who the perpetrators are."
The perpetrators, who apparently eschew the legal activism of most environmentalists and animal-rights proponents, describe their work as "nonviolent economic sabotage." Most attacks seem to occur at times when owners, employees, or customers are out of harm's way, and they are more likely to involve graffiti, minor vandalism, and "stink bombs" than explosions and major arson.
'Prisoners of war'
To those who believe that illegal acts in defense of nature are justified, the effort amounts to war.
"If we are trespassing, so were the soldiers who broke down the gates of Hitler's death camps," states the Animal Liberation Front. "If we are thieves, so were the members of the Underground Railroad who freed the slaves of the South; and if we are vandals, so were those who destroyed forever the gas chambers of Buchanwald and Auschwitz." The ALF maintains a list of "prisoners of war" - radical activists who have been caught and jailed.
Claims of responsibility and other messages from the ALF and the ELF have been coming through an umbrella group in Portland, Ore., known as the Liberation Collective. Spokesman Craig Rosebraugh says he agrees with the aims of the underground groups but claims not to know the identities of those whose messages he passes along.
Critics reject the claims of nonviolence by such groups. Some go so far as to link radical activists to the aims and tactics of "Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski, now serving a life sentence on charges related to 16 bombings that took three lives and injured another 23 people over a 17-year period.
"These crimes generally take the form of equipment vandalism, but may include package bombs, blockades using physical force to obstruct workers from going where they have a right to go, and invasions of private or government offices to commit the crime of civil disobedience," Ron Arnold told a congressional hearing last summer. Mr. Arnold is the author of a book titled "Ecoterror."
"We simply cannot - and will not - tolerate domestic terrorism in the name of Mother Nature," says Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, who chairs a House of Representatives subcommittee investigating the illegal activities of those claiming to act on behalf of the environment and animal rights.
Whether or not such radical activism is organized in any structural way, it has certainly become international in scope, and its tactics appear to be similar around the world.
Within the past nine months, for example, there have been at least 30 such attacks in Poland. These include instances of vandalism at butcher shops, circus facilities, and stores selling furs, as well as more-serious property damage. Last month, more than 700 red and polar foxes at a farm in northern Poland were sprayed with a harmless dye that made their pelts unmarketable.
In the United States, the nature of some ecocrimes makes them federal offenses. The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are working on the Vail case, thought to be the costliest case of ecosabotage in United States history.
Since 1996, the ELF and the ALF (which are thought to overlap in personnel as well as aims) have been responsible for at least seven arson fires, six of them in the Pacific Northwest. Several of the targets have been facilities belonging to government land-management agencies.
Since last September, there have been attempts to release wild horses and burn the corrals where they are kept by the federal Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming, Colorado, and Oregon.